Tom Izzo and March generally go together like bread and butter, Bert and Ernie and basket and ball. Plain and simple, it just works. Izzo's group of seniors last season were the first four-year group under Izzo not to make the Final Four, so Izzo is hungry to return to his winning ways with this group of Michigan State Spartans. They finished the year at 23-11, 12-6 in the Big Ten and nearly beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten Tournament crown. For their success, they were placed in the East region as a #7 seed and will play Georgia. They're tough, they play excellent defense, and Branden Dawson has the size and athleticism to match up with virtually any player in the country. Can Izzo propel them to a few victories in March? We'll have to find out.
Their first matchup is against the Georgia Bulldogs, a team in the SEC that played Kentucky extremely close up until the final few minutes. The Bulldogs are led by Marcus Thornton, a 6'8 senior averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds, and Kenny Gaines, a 6'3 guard averaging 12 points and 4 rebounds. Thornton will likely be guarded by Dawson, a intriguing matchup of two highly skilled wings. Gaines was unable to play in 2 of Georgia's final 3 games because of a foot injury, and they need him in a big way. The Bulldogs were only able to score 49 points against Arkansas, as big man Nemanja Djurisic finished the game with 3 points. They will need more from Djurisic as well, a 6'8 senior from Montenegro, who will likely be guarded by Matt Costello.
After further examining Georgia, I come away extremely underwhelmed. They have losses at Georgia Tech, South Carolina twice, on a neutral site to Minnesota and Auburn. These are bad losses to teams that will not be going to the NCAA Tournament, and the Bulldogs seem to be struggling with injuries and fatigue as the season winds down. They play the early game on Friday against the Spartans, but I don't see them as too much of a challenge. Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine should be able to pick apart the Georgia defense, and even Gavin Schilling should have some nice contributions against a smaller Georgia frontline. In the end, Michigan State should be able to handle the Bulldogs pretty easily.
If the Spartans are able to advance, they will very likely end up playing Virginia. The Cavaliers are one of the best teams in the country, finishing the year at 29-3 and winning the ACC regular season title outright. A loss in the ACC Tournament likely cost them a #1 seed, and Michigan State will more than likely be their second round opponent.
The Cavaliers play a pack-line style of defense under Tony Bennett, the master of shortening the clock and playing ultra efficient basketball. Five times this season Virginia was able to hold opponents under 40 points, which is remarkable considering the number of possessions in a 40 minute game, and 3 times teams were held under 30. Virginia does not have a prolific offense, but they have a few scorers capable of having huge games.
Justin Anderson was the go-to guy in Charlottesville before a hand injury kept him out of the lineup, and Malcolm Brogdon has filled his place extremely well. Both Brogdon and Anderson can shoot, drive and pass, allowing big men Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill to camp out under the basket for offensive rebounds and dumpoff passes. But perhaps my favorite player on the Cavaliers is London Perrantes. Perrantes is the quarterback of the offense, setting up other players and only taking shots when he absolutely has to. He always appears under control, and is averaging nearly 5 assists per game.
Marial Shayok and Evan Nolte provide size on the wing off the bench for Virginia, as both are capable shooters and decent defenders. Darion Atkins joins Brogdon, Anderson, Perrantes and Tobey in the starting lineup, and Isaiah Wilkins has been very effective at replacing him off the bench in recent weeks. Virginia will only go about 8 or 9 deep, but this rotation is the reason that Virginia has had so much success this season.
While Virginia should be the favorite, this is a very similar Virginia team that lost to Michigan State in the Sweet 16 last season. If Virginia is able to get by Belmont, expect Tony Bennett to use this as a talking point to motivate his players even more. Michigan State is going to have to hit a ton of outside shots and make the Cavaliers get into foul trouble. If they can make their shots, Michigan State has a slim chance to advance. In the end, I think Brogdon and Anderson carry the scoring load to beat the Spartans, and Virginia advances on to the Sweet Sixteen.